Here’s a great round-up of some board books and picture books you’ll want for your own shelf. You’ll notice I’ve added two extra notes at the end of each review beyond age recommendation: female character ratio and diversity. For the female ratio, I actually counted every character and did the math. Sometimes this was iffy for very cartoony characters, and I relied a lot on gender-specific clothing. If I couldn’t tell, I didn’t count the character as either. Gender fluidity is a separate issue and one I am not addressing here. For my diversity note, that is me checking out if the pictures had people with various skin tones, or other obvious ethnically representative features. It’s not science, but like the ages, it’s a guide.
My hope is that by pointing this out, we can all be more aware of what needs to change in the children’s publishing industry to better reflect the world we live in. This way, every child sees themselves as a hero in a story, and can admire heroes that don’t look like them.
Who? A Celebration of Babies by Robie H. Harris and Natascha Rosenberg is adorable. When my children were very young, they loved seeing pictures of other babies. This book is full of them, all kinds and all so very cute. Each baby has someone visit them that they love from parents to grandparents to pets. Sweet.
50% Female characters
I get a lot of books as a reviewer. I can’t possibly keep them all. (If you’re curious, I give them to family, friends or into my Little Free Library.) But Frankie’s Magical Day: A First Book of Whimsical Words by Michelle Romo is a keeper. Not because it’s one of those heart-warming, life-changing tales, in fact, at first glance it seems just a cute First Words book we all got our kids for long car rides. But the magic is in the details. This is less a “Find the policeman!” kind of book, and instead a “Find the abandoned grocery cart with a ghost in it!” The odd, little happy characters are what caught my attention, like the smiling goth teenager giving out samples in the grocery store. In addition to the usual house, backyard, street, store spread, there is also one of her dreams. Magical indeed.
Ages 3 – 5
50% Female characters
It’s the perfect time for Summer by David A. Carter. This is a lovely pop-up board book showcasing the beauty and abundance of nature during the summer months (presumably in North America). Although there are plenty of berries and vegetables names, I liked that the bugs and birds and other critters had their official names printed. Not just “butterfly,” but “California Sister.” Not just “bird,” but “Pileated Woodpecker.” Kids can soak up lots of knowledge, give ‘em the good stuff.
Gender and Diversity: n/a
In Hero Vs Villain by T. Nat Fuller and Alex Eben Meyer, we learn that opposites don’t have to be enemies. The round, colorful characters in this board book, a girl with a poofy ponytail and hero’s cape, with a bird-like villain in a top hat, disagree on everything: smile or frown, build or destroy, can they ever agree? Yes, on friendship.
Ages 3 -5
50% Female characters
Susie Ghahremani isn’t afraid to introduce math concepts to young children, and you shouldn’t be either. With the board book, Stack the Cats, ten adorable cartoon cats group themselves during playtime. Three cats stack, nine cats make three stacks. Not something to try in real life (heh) but makes a cute book. Check out more details in this review.
Gender neutral characters
Whose Boat? By Toni Buzzeo and Tom Froese is for any young one who lives by the water or wishes they did. Inside the bright pages are all kinds of boats and the correct names of the people who use them. This is a board book, but the information is good for older children as well. Great for an older sibling read-a-loud.
50% Female characters
Who doesn’t love the image of a determined girl? In The Princess and the Pitstop by Tom Angleberger and Dan Santat, the cover of a cross-armed, tight-smiling girl sums up the speedy heroine in this fun picture book. The Princess is in a car race in fairy tale land with unicorns, dragons and a fairy godmother, but this girl doesn’t need magic to win.
“…she might as well give up! Instead the princess hit the gas!”
Passing characters from classic stories, all wearing racing goggles inside their cars (funny illustrations), our girl never loses sight of her goal. With clever word play (the Gingerbread Man bit is especially amusing), the Princess leaves everyone in her rainbow dust.Ages 5-7
33% Female characters
Diversity: Barely, though many characters are animals.
My Stinky Dog by Christine Roussey is a very silly picture book with charming, child-like drawings about a boy and his best friend Alfred. Alfred is a dog who is a great soccer player, but also stinks terribly. With amusing descriptions on exactly how bad he stinks, his owner tries to figure out how to solve the problem before moving to New York. The ending is not necessarily what you think.
Ages 3 – 6
0% Female characters
Grandma Gatewood Hikes the Appalachian Trail by Jennifer Thermes is one of my favorite true-life stories. Emma “Grandma” Gatewood was the first woman to hike the 2,160-mile trail alone. The illustrations in this picture book are bright and delightful as we follow the story of her journey. There are interspersed maps and facts about the trail itself to round out the tale. This is the perfect story for all ages to hear about someone who never gave up despite age, money, or serious physical obstacles. She was very determined and accepted help when needed. When asked why she did it, she answered, “For the heck of it!”
98% Female characters: although the story is all about a woman, the people she interacts with are mostly men in the illustrations.
All That Trash by Meghan McCarthy is an adorably illustrated picture book about a very ugly problem- our modern world’s problem with stuff. McCarthy takes a huge issue and breaks it down to a single story about the 1987 garbage barge named Mobro4000 that left New York City to find a place to dump, but no one wanted it. What happened? Find out.
Ages 5 – 8
2% Female Characters
Holy crap is this book gorgeous: the deep shades of blue, the epic armored knights, expansive spreads of ships at sea, and the owl flying- oh, the owl! The Night Knights by Gideon Sterer and Cory Godbey is a keeper for my shelves, not just for the beauty of the art, but a tale for all who fear the dark. It’s told in stately prose (with good choice of fonts!) about all the guardians of the dark that keep monsters as bay. There are Knights, owl riders, archers, sailors, and tiny creatures- all sworn to protect our homes and beds. I sighed in happiness at this book.
Ages 4 – 9
20%-40% Female characters: This was a tough one because most of the people have their features hidden. Although the term “horsemen” is used, there are two very female riders on that page, which could lead the reader to believe other hooded figures are also female. However, many of the characters have a decidedly masculine look, and the only clear view is of a boy.
People Don’t Bite People by Lisa Wheeler and Molly Idle is pretty funny. I love rhyming verse picture books and this had me singing a made-up tune. As the title states, this is practical advice on what our teeth are meant for with a retro cartoon style.
“People don’t bite people. You’re not a zombie, dude! A friend will never bite a friend. Biting is for food.”
42% Female characters
In second grade I borrowed Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi and Ron Barrett and had to be severely reminded of what “borrow” means because I never wanted to give it back. So I was very excited to read Lots More Animals Should Definitely Not Wear Clothing, a follow-up to a previous book of similar silliness. The world play and alliteration is fun and the illustrations are clever in Ron’s signature style.
50% Female characters: This is an important choice here- kudos to the Barretts. Many children’s books with animals or objects tend to make male the default, but in this book the clothing choices are equal gender.
Rosa’s Animals: The Story of Rosa Bonheur and Her Painting Menagerie by Maryann Macdonald is a picture book for all ages. Ron Bonheur was one of the most famous painters of the 19th century, which is an incredible feat considering she lived in a time when most women were not educated or appreciated for their creativity and art. This book tells her story and is an inspiration to all artists in training to stay true to what keeps you excited about your work. She painted realism when impressionism was the thing. The book is full of her sketches and illustrations showcasing this pheneomenal artist. “I have no patience with women who ask permission to think,” Rosa once said. Here’s a book that will make anyone think.
Ages: 8 – 12(would make a great coffee-table book)
98% Female characters: Although this book is ALL about a women in content, her paintings with people are generally men.
World Make Way: New Poems Inspired By Art from The Metropolitan Museum of Art edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins.
“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” This Leonardo Da Vinci quote opens the exquisite picture book World Make Way: New Poems Inspired By Art from The Metropolitan Museum of Art edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. It features eighteen poems especially commissioned for this book, written by contemporary poets. A book for all ages (and coffee tables).
“This is how we’ll touch the sky,
Outrun the wind, outshine the sun.”
Ti-ki-ri, ti-ki-ri, tin, tin, Tin!” calls out the poet Guadalupe Garcia McCall to a 19th century Mexican wood engraving.
The poem accompanied by a Homer piece begins:
“We are rowing our way
across a small, stretched
canvas of time”…
50% Female artists/poets
Diversity: Yes! An international selection.
All books were provided for review.